But it hadn’t been paper blowing past me—it had been people. Or what had been left of them, anyway. And that day, if I’d not made it out before nightfall, I would have become one of these . . . these . . . dehydrated rinds of human matter, too.
I backed away. I didn’t need to peer beneath any more coats to know those husks were all that was left of Rocky O’Bannion and fifteen of his men, but I did anyway. I lifted three more, and that was all I could take. The men hadn’t even been able to see what was killing them. I wondered if the Shades had attacked simultaneously, waiting for all of them to get out of their cars, or if only the front two men had stepped out of each car and then, when the two in the rear had seen them go down, sucked into little scraps of whatever it was the Shade palate found indigestible in humans, they too had lunged out, guns blazing, only to fall victim to the same unseen foe. I wondered if the Shades were clever enough to wait, or merely driven by mindless, insatiable hunger.
If they’d gotten me that first night I’d been lost, I’d have been able to see what was coming—great big oily darknesses—but I’d not have known I was a Null, or even a sidhe-seer, and although I probably would have raised my hands to try to fend it off, I wasn’t sure the Shades had a tangible form that I could touch to freeze.
I made a mental note to ask Barrons.
I stared at the four cars, at the piles that were all that remained of sixteen men: clothing, shoes, jewelry, guns; there were lots of guns. They must have been packing at least two each; blue steel littered the pavement around the cars. Apparently Shades killed quickly or all the guns had silencers, because I hadn’t heard a single shot last night.
No matter that these men had been criminals and killers, no matter that once before they’d wiped out two entire families, I could not absolve myself of their deaths. By omission or commission, my hand was in it, and I would carry it inside me for the rest of my life in a place that I would eventually learn to live with, but never learn to like.
Fiona arrived at eleven-fifty to open the bookstore. By mid-afternoon, the day had turned overcast, drizzly, and cold, so I flipped on the gas logs in the fireplace in the rear conversation area, curled up with some fashion magazines, and watched the customers come and go, wondering what kind of lives they had and why I couldn’t have one like that, too.
Fiona chatted brightly with everyone but me and rang up orders until eight o’clock on the dot, when she locked up the store and left.
Mere hours after its urbane owner had killed sixteen men, all was business as usual at Barrons Books and Baubles again, which begged the question: Who was the stone-colder killer—the overzealous ex-boxer turned mobster, or the car-collecting bookstore owner?
The mobster was dead. The very-much-alive bookstore owner stepped in from the rain, a little later than usual but no worse for the wear, at half past nine that night. After relocking the front door, he stopped at the cash register to check on notes Fiona had left him about two special orders placed that day, then joined me, taking an armchair opposite my perch on the sofa. His blood-red silk shirt was splattered with rain and molded to his hard body like a damp second skin. Black trousers clung to his long muscular legs, and he was wearing black boots that had wicked-looking silver toes and heels. He had on that heavy silver Celtic wrist cuff again that made me think of arcane chants and ancient stone circles, complemented by a black-and-silver torque at his throat. He radiated his usual absurd amount of energy and dark, carnal heat.
I looked him straight in the eye, and he gazed straight back at me, and neither of us said a word. He didn’t say, I’m sure you saw the cars out back, Ms. Lane and I didn’t say, You cold-blooded bastard, how could you? And he didn’t counter with, You’re alive, aren’t you? So I didn’t remind him that he’d been the one to jeopardize my life to begin with. I have no idea how long we sat there like that, but we had a complete conversation with our eyes. There was knowledge in Jericho Barrons’ gaze, a bottomless pit of it. In fact, for a moment, I imagined I saw The Tree Itself in there, smothered with delicious, shiny red apples just begging to be eaten, but it was only a reflection of flames and crimson silk on irises so dark they served as a black mirror.
There was one thing we hadn’t covered in our wordless communiqué that I just had to know. “Did you even think twice, Barrons? Did you feel any hesitation at all?” When he didn’t answer, I pressed, “For just a few moments, did you wonder about their families? Or worry that maybe one of them was a last-minute substitute who’d never done anything worse in his life than steal some kid’s lunch in fourth grade?” If eyes were daggers, mine would have killed. These were all things I’d been thinking about throughout the long day; that somewhere out there were wives and children whose husbands and fathers were never coming home again, who would never know what had happened to them. Should I gather their personal effects—minus their ghastly remains—and ship them anonymously to the police department? I understood the grim comfort of knowing for a fact that Alina was dead, of having seen her body and laid her in the ground. If she’d simply disappeared, I’d have gone through every day of the rest of my life driven by an unquenchable, desperate hope, searching every face in every crowd, wondering if she was alive out there somewhere. Praying she wasn’t in the hands of some psycho.